The article attempts to debunk some of the myths which is does to a certain extent. The questions it answers are at least the right ones. For example:
"Aren't you just in this to make a 'quick buck'?" - good question.
Climate Care answer that we should think of it as:
"'is it wrong to profit from tackling climate change?'" - a good question also.
It is not clear that the answer should be "yes".
Climate Cares defence?
"In fact, in a global capitalist economy no profit equals no action."
Not strictly true. There are many charities out there that operate on a "not for profit basis". It is good that Climate Care make all the results public so that we can see where the money is spent and how much is spent on salaries and administration (and how these figures compare with mainstream charities such as Oxfam etc.)
This article is useful and acts as a good reference post whenever I get asked tricky questions on this topic.
Warning - long post alert
Q&A: Carbon offsetting [Guardian via Climate Care]
What is 'carbon offsetting'?
Carbon offsetting is buying carbon reductions made by someone else. You measure your 'carbon footprint' - normally in tonnes of CO2 - from an activity or your whole lifestyle and buy an equivalent amount of 'carbon credits' to offset this impact.
Isn't it just an excuse to keep on polluting?
Only if you use it as an excuse. Should we scrap our recycling system in case some people use it as an excuse to keep on producing more waste than they need to?
The House of Commons recently investigated carbon offsetting and concluded that: "we found little substantial evidence to support the view that offsetting encourages ethical carelessness". The Voluntary Carbon Market (pdf), Sixth Report of Session 2006-7, House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, p.14
But it doesn't lead to any overall reduction in carbon emissions, right?
It absolutely DOES lead to an overall reduction.
This would only be true if all the carbon emissions that are being offset would have been avoided if offsetting weren't available. Firstly, hardly anyone can get their carbon footprint down to zero. Secondly, even where it is technically possible to avoid certain carbon emissions people may not be prepared to - for example the green guru Satish Kumar still flies to India to visit his family.
If you don't offset there is no way to take full responsibility for your impact on climate change - offsetting lets you deal with your unavoidable carbon emissions.
Surely I should do everything I can to reduce my carbon before I consider offsetting the rest?
No. We should do both at the same time. Offsetting isn't just an optional extra, to be added on top of the things we're doing to reduce our carbon impact. It's an essential part of fighting climate change.
Because a credible offset will direct your money wherever in the planet it makes the biggest impact.
For example, Climate Care is helping to fund simple 'treadle' water pumps for farmers in India, to give them the freedom to irrigate their crops without relying on expensive, polluting diesel pumps. Pound for pound this project will make hundreds of times more carbon savings than many options in the UK.
As a comparison it costs an average of £12,000 for a home solar panel (2kW). This will take over 2000 years to make the same carbon savings as the treadle pump project will make in a single year with the same investment. What's more, over 300 India families will be helped off the poverty line.
George Monbiot has stated in his book Heat that we must "seek the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions, for the reason that a pound spent on an inefficient process is a pound not spent on an efficient one". If we apply this principle to the world, not just the UK, the result is carbon offsetting.
So why don't we spend all our money on carbon offsets?
Offsetting is part of changing the world system - but it is only part of what we can do. We should also reduce our own impact - making our houses energy efficient, taking holidays nearer to home, buying seasonal, locally sourced food. And we should get involved politically: tell your MP that action on climate change is a priority.
We must work to change things at home and abroad. One without the other does not make sense. Paying other countries to cut their pollution while carrying on exactly as we are is unacceptable, but so is ignoring the rest of the world and failing to support low-carbon development in countries like India.
Why describe carbon offsets as 'changing the world system'?
Because to tackle climate change we need to green the global economy.
Experts such as Nicolas Stern say this involves putting a price on carbon emissions. This price, so long as it is high enough, helps the economy to choose the low-carbon options: it makes polluters pay and rewards those making reductions.
By offsetting you are supporting a world economy that takes carbon into account.
If the 'price is high enough'. Offsets are so cheap, so surely they can't make a difference?
Carbon offsets will be cheap whilst there are still opportunities for small investments to make big carbon savings. A low price for carbon offsets shows how much carbon there is to save, and how few people are prepared to pay for it!
The more of us that offset, the faster the cheaper projects will get used up. The price will start to go up and have more of an influence on our behaviour. But even at a low price they are still helping by funding carbon reductions.
Aren't there a lot of cowboys out there selling dodgy offsets?
There are cowboys out there. But the fact that there are cowboy builders doesn't mean we should not build houses.
When buying offsets there are a few simple questions to help you decide: are they verified under a recognised standard (eg the Gold Standard; is the provider chosen by major companies that will have done their own due diligence?; is the provider transparent about how the money is spent?
So I pay my money and buy my offset. What happens then?
This depends on who you buy the offset from.
Climate Care uses a 'portfolio approach', investing the money in a range of different projects. Some are highly innovative - such as providing efficient cooking stoves for thousands of families in Africa, with robust measurements of how much pollution is being saved. Others are more 'tried and tested', such as investing in wind turbines generating green electricity. This means that we can use the funds from our customers to promote really exciting developments in low-carbon technologies.
The key thing is that the reduction you have paid for will be made, no matter how any particular project performs.
There are now internationally recognised standards for carbon offset projects. Independent experts approve the project and verify the carbon savings that it makes. The key ones that Climate Care uses are:
· United Nations CDM standard: good for larger projects
· Gold Standard for Voluntary Offsets: designed for community scale projects with strong sustainable development benefits.
· Voluntary Carbon Standard: benchmark standard for voluntary projects.
Isn't offsetting about planting trees?
Absolutely not. The most important way to invest money from offsets is in promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. These reduce the amount of fossil carbon that will be dug out of the ground - in the form of coal, oil etc - and burnt to create CO2 in the atmosphere.
The key phrase in a good quality offset project is 'market transformation' - using the money from offsets to direct the economy away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon technology. How you do this depends on the technology being funded and the country it is in.
For example, in most countries you can produce electricity cheaper through coal-fired power stations than wind farms. By calculating and buying the carbon saved by the 'green energy' from wind turbines you can provide that essential extra source of money, on top of selling the electricity, to encourage wind turbines rather than coal power-stations to be built.
That said, a fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from forest fires, land use change etc. We cannot ignore the protection and restoration of forests if we are to tackle climate change. However there is a lot of complexity around using them as offsets.
What is clearly a bad investment is offsetting through planting trees in the UK, where they are counted towards the government's own carbon reduction targets and therefore do not help achieve any new carbon reductions.
Aren't you just in this to make a 'quick buck'?
The key question is 'is it wrong to profit from tackling climate change?'
If we are happy for companies to make a profit when their products help cause climate change - home energy, petrol, flights, consumer goods - then how can we object to offset companies making a profit? If the offset is credible, leading to real emissions reductions, then why not?
In fact, in a global capitalist economy no profit equals no action. People need to make money from tackling climate change - it attracts entrepreneurs and investors to get things moving.
Given the huge amount of coverage for carbon offsetting it is important to keep it in context. The market for voluntary offsets is growing fast, but from a very small starting point. The government has valued the market at £60 million in 2006.
Parliament's environment committee stated clearly in its report on carbon offsets (pdf) that:
"If the voluntary offset market is going to fulfil its potential as part of the drive to reduce carbon emissions and raise awareness about climate change then there needs to be a considerable increase in the numbers of individuals choosing to participate" (p.50). They urged the government help and encourage more people and companies to offset.
Aside from the above point of principle, no one could describe Climate Care as 'in it for a quick buck'. Mike Mason founded the company over 10 years ago, investing his own money and working without drawing a salary. It was a long slog of 8 years before enthusiasm for tackling climate change, and consequently the sale of offsets, finally took off. Climate Care's aim is to have the biggest impact in tackling climate change globally. To do this we need to grow. But we will keep the integrity that has earned us such as strong reputation. (As part of our policy of being transparent and open we publish full annual accounts so you can see for yourself how our customers money is spent).
Offsets are a drop in the ocean then?
Climate Care has delivered over 1 million tonnes of CO2 reductions - the same as taking 300,000 cars off the road for a year. Next year we anticipate sales that will let us fund reductions equal to 1% of the UK's annual carbon footprint.
This is against a background of ten years in which UK CO2 emissions have increased by 4.6m tonnes per year.
So offsets are starting to deliver serious volumes of carbon reductions.
You are obviously in favour of offsets - you sell them. Who else is cheering them on?
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (pdf):
"we believe that the voluntary carbon offset market does have a role to play both in reducing carbon emissions and raising awareness of climate change issues to the general public."
Leading green NGOs Forum for the Future and The Climate Group:
"Drastic cuts in carbon emissions are necessary to stabilise climate change, and carbon offsetting has a vital role to play in this."
Yvo De Boer, United Nations climate chief:
"it makes sense to get the biggest bang for your bucks, to identify the most cost-effective emissions reduction options around the world …The atmosphere doesn't care where you reduce emissions as long as you reduce emissions."
Al Gore, climate campaigner:
"The debate has moved on to what kinds of carbon offsetting have credibility, and which fall into the 'snake oil' category. Those that have genuine integrity are now, actually, driving a massive cottage industry around the world, which is every day reducing CO2 emissions".